OA-X Contender Moonlights as AFRL Testbed
Months have passed since the United States Air Force (USAF) finished the first phase of its light attack aircraft experiment. The OA-X assessment, which took place at Holloman Air Force Base (AFB) in New Mexico, evaluated how quickly and cost effectively four commercial, off-the-shelf aircraft could be used to fly military air support missions in “current, permissive environments.”
The four aircraft—Textron AirLand’s Scorpion light attack jet, Textron’s turboprop AT-6, Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) and Embraer Defense & Security’s turboprop A-29 Super Tucano, and L3 Technologies and Air Tractor’s turboprop AT-802L Longsword—all spent weeks conducting flight operations and weapon simulations; however, there is still no information as to whether the USAF will purchase, lease, or even implement a light attack aircraft option.
While the current plan mentions OA-X combat demonstrations in 2018, USAF officials are currently using OA-X competitors as testbeds for other technologies—such as the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) AgilePod, the USAF-developed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platform.
Toward the end of 2017, AFRL officials met with Textron engineers and discussed the idea of installing AgilePod onto the company’s Scorpion light attack jet, which can host a broad suite of sensors.
The “multi-intelligence, open architecture, reconfigurable” AgilePod is seen as a “game-changer” for the ISR and USAF Special Operations communities. Initially, the pod prototype interior comprised a series of modular compartments that could accommodate any sensors that flight-line operators might require for a specific mission. The open architecture sensor software, which is a set of common messages and interfaces, allows proprietary sensors and systems to integrate from a mechanical and electrical perspective.
The design allows, for example, high-definition video, electro-optical and IR sensors, and radar to be deployed in a single pylon-mounted unit. When compared to the time and weight spent installing each separate sensor on an aircraft, the benefit of the AgilePod is considerable.
However, modular sensor arrangements are not the AgilePod’s only merit.
When the Manufacturing and Industrial Technologies Division at AFRL’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate took delivery of the pod prototype from contractor KEYW Corp. on December 14, 2016, it not only became the owner of the prototype, but it also took control of the unlimited rights to the technical data for its design.
As the pod was designed, manufactured, and tested, technical data was digitally captured along every step of the process to create a traceable digital record of design decisions.
As the design of the platform progressed, the AFRL team was able to leverage this digital thread and identify specific design decisions to rapidly create a family of various-sized AgilePods. The development also demonstrated the benefits of agile manufacturing processes in design. Additive manufacturing was used to manufacture several non-critical flight parts on the pods, ultimately lightening the load. Flexible tooling and the integration of multiple composite components also demonstrated flexibility and speed in manufacturing design.
Everything concerning the AgilePod platform is captured into a single data package that can be disseminated to sensor manufacturers to reduce redesign and fit issues. Fastener modification and relocation and mounting hardware orientations are tracked. The final platform now utilizes an open floor plan, as it was found that the compartments limited air flow and added weight. Removable nose cones and various advanced materials are being considered for the exterior of the AgilePod.
“There is a lot of interest from other Air Force communities in this platform, not only for its logistical benefits but because of the potential for the system’s technical data to be modified for other weapon system designs,” according to Mark DiPadua, the Mission Systems team lead in the division’s Electronic Sensors Branch. “Agile manufacturing can help us make things more affordable and producible. We captured this in the data throughout the program, in a much more detailed format than ever before.”
The ability of the AgilePod family to act as a platform for integration and transition of lab technology, accelerating the pace by which AFRL can augment the ISR mission. This is evident in testing, which the AgilePod first flew on a vintage Douglas DC-3 before being tested on a General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper.
“Often laboratory teams in AFRL will build a great sensor, but they have a hard time integrating it into a platform,” said Erik Kvalheim, Senior AgilePod Engineer at the AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate. “AgilePod gives them the opportunity to test new developments in the AgilePod and augment transition to a relevant platform. This is not just for sensors, but it is a carrier for developments in other capabilities such as enhanced targeting, communications, data storage, and onboard processing.”
This past December, a Scorpion—which currently is not part of the USAF service fleet—was fitted with an AgilePod at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.
“This really demonstrates what can be done with plug-and-play capability,” said Travis Cottrell, the vice president for Scorpion Program Management at Textron, in the release. “Being able to put a lot of capability in a small package provides a value in terms of cost, from both the acquisition and operational perspective.”
The Textron Scorpion has ample payload space and cooling capability for advanced sensors and networking systems. These aircraft are also cheaper to field than expensive, purpose-built ISR systems, like the Lockheed U-2s and Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk.
“We showed the openness of the pod by taking an aircraft with a standard set of mechanical and electrical interfaces and attaching the pod,” said Andrew Soine, an electronics systems engineer in the AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, in a Wright-Patterson release.
Ultimately, the new AgilePod effort is helping to build the future of ISR by ensuring the USAF has affordable, enhanced systems with increased capabilities.
“We own the technical baseline, and we own the AgilePod brand,” said McCollum. “The ownership of the digital thread and integration of open architecture is big picture stuff. We are building the future.”